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What's That Instrument?
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What's That Instrument?
by Ed Pritchard
The nyckelharpa (pronounced, er, nickelharpa) is a Swedish bowed instrument that roughly translates as ‘keyed fiddle’, though it is worn around the neck like a guitar and not placed under the chin like a violin. Originating in the Middle Ages, in its modern, chromatic form it has sixteen strings, though you only actually play four of them – the rest resonate sympathetically with the notes you play, amplifying the sound and giving the nyckelharpa a built-in reverb. Wherever you are, you sound like you're playing in a cathedral.
Looking like something that might have been invented by Hieronymus Bosch after too many Heinekens, this illegitimate offspring of a fiddle and a hurdy-gurdy has keys to change the pitch of the notes like a gurdy, but no wheel; instead, a short bow is used to drive the strings. It has to be short – any longer and the player gets stabbed in the throat rather more often than is comfortable.
This is a picture of my nyckelharpa, made by Swedish luthier Olov Jansson, and acquired in May 2010 via www.nyckelharpa.com (yes, really!). As you press the keys with the fingers of your left hand, the little tangents that are attached to the key extensions press against the strings to make the note. The tangents are adjustable for tuning purposes. There are three rows of keys: the fourth, lowest-pitched melody string has no tangents so only plays one note, which can be used as a drone. I have my nyckelharpa in 'Swedish' tuning, which from low to high is C - G - C - A. The A string is at the same pitch as the A string on a violin.
The ‘harpa’ is regarded as the Swedish national instrument, but it nearly became extinct until the folk revival of the 1960s. Now there are thousands of players in Sweden, but the instrument has taken longer to catch on elsewhere. There are currently (we think) less than forty players in the UK, but that is likely to change in the next few years. The likes of Vicki Swan (pictured), Gris Sanderson, and Clare Salaman are making the harpa more prominent in UK folk, theatrical, and medieval music circles respectively, inspiring others (like me!) to take up the instrument.
Abroad, famous players of the nyckelharpa are Swedish: Olov Johansson of the mighty Väsen is probably the best known, but Mats Wester of the folk-rock group Nordman recently played some shows and made a DVD with American blues-rock giant Joe Bonamassa at the Vienna Opera House and the Royal Albert Hall.
The link below is to a beautiful piece of music in the Swedish 'polska' style composed by Olov Johansson and performed by him along with Scottish harpist Catriona McKay.
Epinette, scheitholt, nyckelharpa -
they've got pegs that go flatta and sharpa;
the quaint langeleik
may look like a freik,
but a gurdy will make people scarpa!